It’s through news that people are able to share information of importance that can be of value to society at large. It’s also because of information shared by the media that society is then able to understand itself and make well-informed decisions. 

Despite these benefits, the process of reporting news is not always clear cut; there are hurdles in some assignments that require a journalist to be morally aware in order to report on sensitive matters in an ethical manner. 

With that said, let’s look at the three topics that journos should cover with ‘kid gloves’: 

Sensitive topic #1: An assignment on sexual harassment

When running a story on a sexual harassment case, there are a number of things that you should consider when questioning the perpetrator, such as judging your subject or playing the devil’s advocate by cross-questioning them; rather remain objective and not allow emotions to get in the way. 

Additionally, in such cases, journalists should show some sympathy towards the victims. Why? In situations of sexual harassment cases at the workplace, some are afraid of being victimised by their alleged perpetrator and, amongst other things, losing their jobs if they speak out.

This then becomes a catch-22: If the victim speaks out, they run the risk of losing their job. And if they choose to remain discreet, the perpetrator might continue to harass them, or even disrupt the situation by bringing internal interventions, such as disciplinary proceedings into the matter. 

So, how should a journo cover such a beat? Well, start by respecting your subject’s wishes: If they want to remain anonymous, honour their request and keep their identity private throughout the case until they’re comfortable going public. 

While some journalists might do the unethical thing and reveal their subjects’ names, it’s wiser not to do so; your story will still carry the weight of being newsworthy without a victim’s name in it, even if it goes viral. 

Take, for instance, recent reports by different news publishers such as News24, The Citizen, EWN and TimesLive who were reporting on a Kaya FM boss accused of sexual harassment claims. In all their reports since August 2020, not once did they reveal the names of their source(s).

Sensitive topic #2: News of a significant passing

Surely it would seem great to be the first to break the news of the death of a prominent individual, right? Wrong! Don’t let your excitement cloud your judgment — follow the correct procedures that have been put in place by regulatory bodies, such as the South African Editors Forum (SANEF). They exist for very specific reasons! 

It’s also important for journos to treat the families of public figures or celebrities who have died with respect and dignity in the process of reporting the news. For example, in recent reports of the passing of former Bafana Bafana player Anele Ngcongca, there was a tug of war between the Ngcongca family, the Department of Sport Arts and Culture and sports journo Robert Marwa.

Here’s what went down: The sports department was accused of sharing premature and private details, while sports journo Marwa jumped to the family’s defense in an attempt to shield their dignity. This according to TimesLive. 

You can see the Tweet exchange below between the family, department of sport and Marawa: 

When it comes to situations such as these, it’s always ideal to always put yourself in the shoes of others, such as the loss of a loved one. Wouldn’t you want to be treated in a certain way? Of course, you would want to be treated with sincerity and respect!

That’s why you should stick  to the basics. Ask yourself: Has the family been informed before I break the news on the passing of this public figure? Should I even capture images of them in an undignified state? If the answers to these questions are a resounding ‘no’, then rather not publish the news before you’ve covered all your ethical bases. 

Sensitive topic #3: Cases involving children 

Reporters covering events that involve children should never put them at risk. By nature, the youth are sensitive and, in most cases, don’t have vast or the complete understanding that an adult would. 

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) urges journalists to respect the rights of every child under any circumstance. During interviews, journalists should pay attention to every child’s right to privacy and confidentiality and protect them from harm.  This includes publishing any images or content about them that might put them, a sibling or friend at risk. 

These are just a glimpse of the things journalists should honour when reporting on topics that are about children. 

In this regard, journalists should not ask questions that are insinuative or judgemental — or that might humiliate them, as this could put them in more stressful situations, reminding them of their trauma in the end. Especially in court proceedings, it’s wise to always ask the child’s legal guardian or representative about the details of the case. 

And when you’re not sure about measures to take, it’s safer to rather not act when it comes to anything that could potentially put the child at risk. This, dear jornos, is more important and more worthy than any assignment that you could hope to get — no matter how newsworthy it is. 

It’s important for a journalist to always reevaluate their ethics and morals when they’re unsure of how to cover sensitive topics. What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments section below. 

Weshu... oratile ditaba tjarena akere na? Refe maikutlo agago.

Professional journalism refers to ethically practiced journalism that is guided by media law, while citizen journalism comes with a few more intricacies. To learn more about this, check out our article , Professional journalism versus citizen journalism.